When Madison Griffith first had sex, she expected it to hurt. The 22 year old had never been able to insert a tampon. It was too painful. She assumed, as any teenage girl would, that she was just inserting it incorrectly. Before long, she just gave up.
When she decided to have sex with a long-term boyfriend at 16, she said the pain didn’t strike her as unusual.
“It was more so the times after that, it was very difficult to start. It felt like losing your virginity every time. It was incredibly painful afterwards. There was this moment of just grinning and bearing it, I was dishonest with my first partner as well, he never knew, I kept that from him for 18 months,” she said.
"When you see porn and what not, these women look kind of like they're in agony, and it made sense to me that this is just what sex is."
For five years, Madison continued to have penetrative sex, despite often not being able to sleep afterwards because of how much it hurt.
"It feels very raw," she explained to me. "Lots of burning, stinging, it's a sort of jolty sensation. Like putting a flame to that part of the body... or like a Chinese burn on the arm. Really agitated."
Things you can't talk about on TV: Labia. Post continues below.
In an article Madison wrote for Vice entitled 'An Open Letter to My Vagina: Sex, Pain, and Vaginismus', she explained "I thought all cis-gendered, heterosexual women faked it. I thought we'd all subscribed to some hilarious inside joke where, in a parallel universe, we'd laugh over coffee about how, as much as sex hurts, we all wanted it. Pain was just a price we had to pay... Because how do you tell somebody you care about and long for at 17 that his love feels like razor blades?"
It wasn't until Madison went to the doctor to undergo a pap smear, five years after she'd had sex for the first time, that she realised something wasn't right.
"I literally couldn't do it," she said. Her vagina was clamped shut.
Madison was then referred to a gynecologist, who believed she had an imperforate hymen; a congenital disorder where the hymen fails to perforate and obstructs the vagina.
But when her gynecologist conducted a thorough examination, it became clear that was not the issue. She was made to feel like the discomfort was just "all in [her] head" which she found incredibly frustrating.
Then one day, Madison's roommate linked her to an article they'd seen online entitled "Closed for Business" by Giselle Nguyen. She detailed how "trying to have sex was like a searing blade ripping through me" but ultimately outlined the process by which she overcame the crippling condition. Finally, Madison had a name for what she had long experienced: Vaginismus.
Symptoms of vaginismus include; burning or stinging with tightness during intercourse, difficulty penetrating the vagina (if at all), difficulty inserting tampons or undergoing a gynecological exam, spasms in body muscles (legs or lower back) during intercourse and often the avoidance of sex due to pain.
Madison reached out to Giselle, and decided to follow the same course of treatment she had recommended.
"When I first start my physiotherapy, my physiotherapist got me to notice that part of my body during the day in completely non-sexual contexts. So walking to my car, or sitting in class, I'd notice that my pelvic floor was completely clenched up - all the time, it was just a disposition. I remember feeling like I was about to pee myself when I just started walking without holding on. And feeling like...it was sort of like I stored my anxiety in that part of my body," Madison explained.
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Her work with a physio also consisted of a lot of talking, and examining herself in a mirror which she had never done. They then began with dilators, which Madison described as "like babushka dolls". She began with her finger, and moved up gradually to increase the size. This process took approximately eight months.
Madison also saw a sex therapist, which involved "figuring out why this happened, and why [she] kept it quiet for so long."
In terms of what caused her condition, Madison believes it's a result of both the mind and the body.
"Originally it was just a fear, an exacerbated fear of sex, which a lot of women my age have. Then as it developed, with bad partners and people who weren't very patient with me, it just got very, very bad really quickly," she reflected.
Like Giselle, Madison decided to write about her experience with vaginismus. After having her article published on Vice, she was contacted by nine women who she knew personally, all telling her that they, too, suffer from the condition.
Today, Madison said she still doesn't wear tampons, and pap smears inspire "grave anxiety".
"The pain element is certainly behind me. I do have to be very careful. And I have a partner now who is incredibly patient and has read everything I've written about it and understands the condition back to front. So if we go to have sex and I feel like my body is a little bit resistant, I feel very confident saying 'no, we need to slow down' and that confidence makes me feel like I have permission to relax, which is really nice."
Is it estimated that two in every 1000 women suffer from vaginismus, but it's prevalence is difficult to gauge due to shame, embarrassment, misdiagnosis or the belief that painful intercourse is 'normal'. Healthcare providers also do not keep reliable records on how many women visit their practice seeking help for issues with vaginal penetration.
Simply, sexual dysfunction in women is not taken nearly as seriously as sexual dysfunction in men.
But hopefully, by sharing stories like Madison's, girls and women will understand that the vagina should not be a site of discomfort and pain. See your doctor if you're experiencing any pain during sex.